Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: will rising temperatures bring down the Pakistan state?

These days I'm reading Anatol Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country. It's a big, smart, wide ranging book about a country where the U.S. is both deeply involved and often deeply ignorant.

There are lots of U.S. pundits who dismiss Pakistan as an irrational, Muslim-fundamentalist, ungovernable "failed state." Lieven is offering an alternative narrative: his Pakistan is a wildly diverse, complicated but essentially resilient society where competing ethnicities, religious traditions, and economic classes somehow co-exist and are likely to continue to succeed in doing so. He labels it a "negotiated state" -- two big political parties (that are both actually ethnic and feudal assemblages) alternate ostensible control of government, occasionally interrupted by military takeovers, but underneath all the fuss, life for most Pakistanis goes on with little change.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes and arresting facts. Who would have thought that in 2002, according to economists' system for measuring such things (the Gini co-efficient), Pakistan is actually a less economically unequal society than the United States? Though millions live in absolutely destitute poverty, their plight is mitigated by family, clan and tribal ties. That is, they enjoy a safety net; it is just organized differently than ours.

I should however point out that Lieven's somewhat attractive Pakistan works not nearly so well for its women.

Lieven sees only one threat that might turn Pakistan into the violent, dangerous "failed state" of so many Western imaginings. That threat is the loss of water resources exacerbated by climate change.
The huge youth bulge making its way through the Pakistani population means that this population will continue to grow steeply for a long time to come (in 2008, 42 per cent of the population was estimated as under the age of fourteen). If present trends continue, then by the middle of the twenty-first century, according to World Bank projections, Pakistan may have as many as 335 million people.

This is far too many people for Pakistan's available water resources to support, unless the efficiency of water use can be radically improved. If the old Indian economy used to be described as 'a gamble on the monsoon', then the entire Pakistani state can be described as 'a gamble on the Indus [river]' -- and climate change means that over the next century this may be a gamble against increasingly long odds. The capricious power of water in this area is demonstrated by the remains of numerous cities -- starting with those of the Indus Valley civilization 4,000 years ago -- that have been either abandoned because rivers have changed their course, or been washed away by floods, as so many towns and villages were by the great floods of 2010.

At an average of 240 mm of rainfall per year, Pakistan is one of the most naturally arid of the world's heavily populated states. … Only 24 per cent of Pakistan's land area is cultivated -- the great majority through man-made irrigation systems. The rest is pastoral land, or uninhabited: desert, semi-desert, and mountain. Chronic over-use, however, means that many of the natural springs have dried up, and the water table is dropping so rapidly in many areas that the tube-wells will also eventually follow them into extinction. That will leave the Indus once again; and in the furor surrounding the debunking of the exaggerated claim that the glaciers feeding the Indus will disappear by 2035, it has been forgotten that they are nonetheless melting; and if they disappear a century or two later, the effects on Pakistan will be equally dire, if no serious action is taken in the meantime radically to improve Pakistan's conservation and efficient use of water.

If the floods of 2010 are a harbinger of a long-term pattern of increased monsoon rains, this on the other hand would potentially be of great benefit to Pakistan -- but only potentially, because to harness them for agriculture requires both a vastly improved storage and distribution infrastructure, and radical measures to stop deforestation in the mountains and to replant deforested areas. Otherwise, increased rainfall will risk more catastrophes like that of 2010 …

…dependence on the Indus is the greatest source of long-term danger to Pakistan. Over the next century, the possible long-term combination of climate change, acute water shortages, poor water infrastructure and steep population growth has the potential to wreck Pakistan as an organized state and society. Long-term international aid projects in Pakistan should be devoted above all to reducing this mortal threat, by promoting reforestation, repairing irrigation systems and even more importantly improving the efficiency of water use. Human beings can survive for centuries without democracy, and even without much security. They cannot live for more than three days without water.

… If anyone thinks that the condition of Pakistan will be of little consequence to the rest of the world in the long run, they should remember that a hundred years from now, if it survives that long, Pakistan will still possess nuclear weapons, one of the biggest armies in the world, one of the biggest populations in the world and one of the biggest diasporas in the world, especially in Britain. lslamist radicalism, which has already existed for hundreds of years, will also still be present, even if it has been considerably reduced by the West's withdrawal from Afghanistan. All of this will still mean that of all the countries in the world that are acutely threatened by climate change, Pakistan will be one of the most important.
That's what global warming may mean in one country. Some of the earth's oldest known civilizations arose in the Indus River valley; the collapse of the present order there could unleash hideous consequences for Pakistan's people and even for those of us half way round the globe.

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